ISIS operating on a military scale in Africa as it aims for territory and riches
British prime minister warns ISIS is bringing misery to new parts of the world
ISIS has spent the last year seeking to regenerate. In this four-part special, The National analyses its strategy for global growth, explores its use of obscure social media platforms, and reveals its profiteering from elephant poaching and the gems trade. Here, Thomas Harding investigates how the extremist group has gained a foothold in Africa.
ISIS has regenerated with a strong presence across at least 11 countries with military-grade weapons and large fighting factions in six African, three Middle East and two Asian countries.
In recent weeks it has sent troops in formations of hundreds to conduct assaults on civilian settlements.
Using well-practised camouflage skills, a force of 300 extremists slipped across the Ravuma River to invade Tanzania in mid-October.
Within hours the gunmen overwhelmed the local security and entered the small town of Kitaya, murdering citizens at will.
The assault demonstrated the growing boldness and ability of the IS Central Africa Province, which is based in Mozambique with ambitions to establish itself across the region.
It has a “direct line of communication” to ISIS commanders in the Middle East, who are encouraging the drive to build strongholds across Africa, The National has found as part of an investigation into ISIS’s global resurgence.
Despite being defeated in Syria and Iraq, and suffering the loss of its leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in a US special forces raid a year ago, the group has not fallen into disarray.
In fact, ISIS is now seeking to establish bases across sub-Sahara Africa in at least six countries – Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria.
Officials admit it has not been completely wiped out in its former strongholds of Iraq and Syria, while the terrorist group is on the rise in Egypt.
It has fully fledged operations in Afghanistan and the Philippines, while neighbouring countries have also reported sporadic attacks.
The Africa-based insurgents have been in direct contact with ISIS, even in the middle of attacks as the group as a whole seeks to maximise propaganda from its actions.
The capabilities of the Mozambique terrorists has risen sharply.
As well as the Tanzania raid, which was launched on October 14, there was an audacious takeover of one of the country's strategic ports.
The seizure of Mocímboa da Praia in the summer was followed by the takeover of at least four tourist islands off the coast in September.
All are believed to be taking place under the co-ordination or approval of ISIS commanders in Iraq.
The National's investigation found that after a series of successful attacks there are concerns that the terrorist group is aiming for Cabo Delgado, in northern Mozambique.
The area has attracted significant foreign investment after the discovery of an estimated $50 billion worth of natural gas and ruby deposits.
Intelligence analysts have reported a “drastic increase in sophistication” in the Mozambique extremists' planning and attacks.
“Does this mean it is Islamic State-directed?” asked Jasmine Opperman, of the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project,
"We don’t know but that there is a foreign influence at play cannot be denied.
ISCAP is thought to have up to 1,000 insurgents.
Its fighters are now capable of reasonably accurate mortar attacks and co-ordinated infantry tactics, and have adapted rocket-propelled grenades to sink ships.
Direct line of communication between ISCAP and ISIS
“If you look at a quick manner in which certain claims are issued, the details that accompany it, it tells you that they have a direct line of communication without a shadow of doubt,” said Ms Opperman, who was a South African intelligence operative for 17 years.
“And they will do it by whatever means available, whether through secure messaging apps or cell phones.”
Communications between the Mozambique militants and ISIS are goin on even during attacks, security experts said.
“There are indicators during attacks of an alignment to the Islamic State,” a western security source said.
“It comes from the translation into Arabic that happens on their posts. It is a strong indication that we cannot ignore the ISIS presence.”
There have been reports of Qatari financial involvement although analysts said this could not be verified.
Speaking to The National, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson specifically warned this month of “an ever-present threat” from ISIS.
Mr Johnson urged that the world did "not become complacent just because their barbaric acts have retreated from the headlines”.
“The dregs of this terrorist network continue to intimidate liberated communities, bring new misery in other parts of the world and plot violence against us all,” he said.
“Our military partners are relentlessly hunting down Daesh remnants, with strong backing from the Global Coalition.
"Britain will keep the pressure up by starving Daesh of cash, exposing its warped propaganda and helping to rebuild the communities it devastated.
"We will not relent until they are consigned to the ash heap of history.”
Among the ranks of its Mozambique offshoot are foreign fighters who are reportedly veterans from the ISIS reign of terror in Syria and Iraq.
These fighters, nicknamed the "Taliban" by locals and probably from Pakistan, are able to instruct local fighters in bomb-making and torture methods.
Beheadings have already been widely reported in the region.
The insurgents have gone from being using baseball bats and machetes to forming well-co-ordinated units using AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, with analysts noting an increase in infantry skills.
Another tactic adapted from the Middle East conflict is the use of government uniforms as a way of gaining entry to checkpoints and bases.
The terrorists have also been leaving ISIS graffiti after operations.
This all points to evidence of advice and training coming from the Middle East, analysts believe.
There is also growing evidence of links with other ISIS-connected terrorist groups in Africa for more co-ordinated action.
The ADF are causing a lot of trouble in eastern Congo and there is a potential suggestion of ties to extremists
Tom Barry, security contractor
The Allied Democratic Forces, originally formed to create an "Islamic" state in Congo and western Uganda, is reported to be in contact with Mozambique insurgents.
“A source has warned me that communication is taking place between the ADF and Mozambique militants,” Ms Opperman said.
“Even though it’s a resource war in Congo I was told that the ADF are getting more into the Islamic State arena.”
A security contractor recently returned from the DRC said he had also heard evidence of the ties.
“The ADF are causing a lot of trouble in eastern Congo and there is a potential suggestion of ties to extremists,” said Tom Barry, of the Akkadian International security group.
“So far they’ve been mainly attacking Ebola clinics, Red Cross vehicles and fighting the Rwandan army on the frontier.
"The terrorists are sent money, which buys their loyalty and leads to a spike in regional violence.”
It has been previously reported that an ISIS financier has provided money to the ADF.
There are as yet no reports of terrorists moving between African countries, apart from Mozambique across its border with South Africa.
But it is understood that ISIS-affiliated groups are using encrypted apps to send voice messages or exchange ideas.
Intelligence agencies are concerned that key terrorists skills, learnt from ISIS's experience in Iraq and Syria, could be passed on and co-ordinated attacks made across southern, central and western Africa.
A worrying picture is also emerging in the failing west African states of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where ISIS is growing in influence.
Extremists have taken over “ungoverned space” in the border area where the three countries meet, expelling criminal gangs and replacing them with their own form of violence.
ISIS interposes amid government entropy
Dr Francesco Milan, a lecturer in violent extremism at King's College London, warned that the border region of the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger triangle was falling into the hands of ISIS.
The government has basically lost control of the border areas
Dr Francesco Milan
“The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has been stepping up its presence, expanding its activities and even competing with Al Qaeda-affiliated groups already operating in the area,” Dr Milan said.
Mr Barry said: “The government has basically lost control of the border areas and ISIS has slotted in as the people who bring law and order, even though it's very bad for the locals.
“Burkina Faso can't control that main route, going north-east towards Niger so the area is lawless.”
The group generates its funds through trafficking illegal immigrants through the Sahara Desert in Niger and into Libya.
“Most of the money for trafficking is spent on the Africa side, not Europe, and it costs an enormous amount to travel in a caravan through the Sahara,” Mr Barry said.
“And if you stop paying you're basically stuck wherever you run out of money.”
Security sources believe that while western countries are unlikely to become overtly involved in failing countries, they are providing small numbers of special forces that in some cases “hold the line” between ISIS and total government collapse.
Updated: October 29, 2020 07:24 AM